Much more than a mirror image

World-renowned photographer Drora Spitz has aggressively begun to redraw the boundaries between photography, fine art and imagination.

Spitz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Spitz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The history of photography is rich in stories about the reception of the new medium at the time of its introduction. The amazing new process of creating almost mirror images of reality, developed in Paris by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and perfected by Louis Daguerre, led many traditional artists to feel that the proverbial rug had suddenly been yanked out from under their feet.
In 1839, the popular French painter Paul Delaroche had his first glimpse at a Daguerreotype plate and is reputed to have declared: “From today, painting is dead!” Around 20 years later and half a world away, Japanese painter Shimooka Renji saw his first Daguerreotype print, went home, broke all of his paintbrushes and became one of Japan’s first photographers.
But just as radio did not replace recorded music, as disc jockeys began playing records on the air; and television did not replace the movies, as studios began to make movies for TV, photography and painting achieved a productive coexistence as each art form began to influence the other.
As the years rolled by, painters like Edward Hopper became famous for creating paintings that looked like photographs, and numerous photographers used varying degrees of abstraction to produce photos that looked like paintings.
Drora Spitz is an example of such a photographer.
Since 1968, Spitz has created photographs with the artistic sensibility of a painter.
Most recently, her work has aggressively begun to break the barriers and redraw the boundaries between photography and fine art, and between photography and imagination.
Metro caught up with the world renowned photographer recently on the occasion of the launching of her new book, Light/Space/Time, which chronicles and celebrates more than 40 years of her professional work.
A lifelong resident of Haifa, Spitz is single and “above 60.” She is the second generation of her family born in Haifa. “My grandparents came from Ukraine in the Second Aliya,” she says.
It was her father, however, who provided Spitz with her first awareness of photography and its possibilities.
She recalls: “My father was an engineer, and he had a company that worked all over the world – Burma, Nepal, Sierra Leone. When I was very young, he used to bring home slides of these places. I was very much attracted to these photos, and all my inspiration toward photography was from these slides that he brought home from his journeys. This is why I wanted to learn photography.”
And learn she did, at a tender age.
“I started to learn photography after school, when I was around 14 years old at WIZOCanada High School of the Arts in Haifa. I began to photograph after the army. I was in the Nahal, in Ein Gev.
“After I finished the army, I began to work at the Technion in the Faculty of Architecture. I became the photographer of the faculty, beginning to work professionally at the age of 20.
“In the beginning, I was photographing with a Rolleiflex, with two lenses. When I finished school, my father bought me a Hasselblad. I continued to work with the Hasselblad – that same Hasselblad – for the next 30 years, until just around four years ago.”
STUBBORNLY HOLDING on to that large-format Hasselblad, Spitz resisted the general trend toward 35-mm. single-lens reflex cameras made popular by such companies as Leica, Nikon and Canon.
“The Hasselblad produces photographs that are three times the quality of those made by Nikon and the other 35-mm. cameras,” she says. It’s hard to disagree with her as one gazes admiringly at the black-and-white desert landscape photographs reproduced in her book.
Every grain of sand and blade of grass, every nuance of sunlight and shadow, and every rock outcropping on even faraway cliffs seems to stand out in astonishing detail.
“I began taking pictures in the Sinai Desert,” says Spitz. “I was traveling for five years in the Sinai – every weekend, all of my vacations. It was fabulous. Until now, I prefer the desert to everything – especially the Sinai. It is very dramatic.
It has beautiful stones and mountains of granite. The vision is very powerful. Also the air is so clear, and everything is like Genesis.
“So for me, the desert is the most beautiful place that has ever existed.”
Spitz’s Sinai period led inevitably to a period of intensive collaboration with sculptor Itzhak Danziger, during which she produced landscape photography that attempted to extract and show the very “essence” of the land of Israel.
She recalls, “We were brought together at the Technion. He was a professor there at the same time I was working in the photo lab. He was a sculptor. For me he was like a philosopher – an artist of thought. He saw my pictures of the Sinai Desert, and he loved them.
He asked me to accompany him, traveling throughout Israel, photographing the country, getting a sense of the places he loved.
“We traveled together for five years – unbelievable years – the Negev, Samaria, everywhere. All over Israel. Holy places. Why holy? Because all of the really beautiful trees that still exist in Israel – the very, very big ones – can be found only near the graves of holy men; because no one ever gets permission to cut down trees or build near these places.
“So we went to see all these places. I followed him all over Israel.”
Danziger’s death in 1977 not only brought an end to Spitz’s landscape photography but also marked the beginning of her interest in color.
“For many years, I worked only in black and white. Later, I discovered color, but I work with it differently.
“I never take the color as it is. When I work with color, I change it a lot. You cannot really imitate reality with colors. It’s very difficult. It’s much more interesting for me to give only an impression or a feeling about a color.”
AS SPITZ started to explore the use of color in the 1970s, her work began to move away from her previous anchoring in realism. She explains: “I began to use a process called solarization. It involved removing a layer of gray from the negative.
I produced a few layers of black and white, which I then colored, resulting in a beautiful effect – almost abstract.
“I was doing this for more than 20 years before digital photography existed. Just experimenting in my photo lab, I invented processes that anticipated digitalization by two decades.”
But without digitalization, those processes were often glacially slow and exceedingly painstaking.
“Each negative was, on the average, around two weeks of work – deconstructing the image and then putting it back together again, but in another way, according to my own vision. I could take the original image and create whatever I wanted.
“It was very complicated, all the different processes of photography together in one image.
It was very new and different. My first solo exhibition, at the Israel Museum, was of this kind of photography. I was 27 years old. It was a sensation.”
Spitz’s switch to digitalization around 10 years ago made her life easier, without immediately changing the direction of her work. She says, “You know, Photoshop built on the ideas that I was working from before. For me, Photoshop is my language. So the things I have been doing have become so much easier. Many of the later photographs in my book were done with the aid of a computer, but the pictures were taken with my Hasselblad – black-and-white photos. I scanned them into the computer and built the color later, layer by layer by layer.”
“Weren’t you more or less ‘Photoshop’ before Photoshop?” we ask. To which she replies, “Yes, I think so!” before we have even finished the question.
Another question that arises after poring through Spitz’s book of photographs is why they are all taken in Israel, and nowhere else.
Asked whether she might be so firmly rooted to the Land of Israel that her creative juices flow only here, she replies, “I think that because in Israel I have all the professional equipment around me that I cannot carry abroad, it has happened that all the photos I love have been made here. There may be other reasons that I’m not consciously aware of. But I think that’s why my photos are from here.
“When I do go abroad, which I like very much – to Japan, for example, which I very much admire – I carry what I call my ‘tourist camera.’ I photograph all the time – beautiful photos – but I want my pictures to be the best quality. This is very important to me. So when I have a small camera, I don’t take myself so seriously. But I photograph everywhere.
It was, in fact, a trip to Japan that led to Spitz’s fascination with dance. She became particularly enthralled with butoh dance, a very peculiar form of performance art developed in postwar Japan – and better liked outside the country than within Japan itself.
As described by Wikipedia: “It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual, with no movement at all.”
When Spitz saw the Sankai Juku Dance Troupe, an iconic group of butoh performers, the effect on her was profound.
“I was in shock. It was so clean and so graphic.
From the moment I saw them, I began to photograph dance. Japanese dance, Israeli dance, even Mongolian dance. I photograph in my studio, where I can move around the dancers, with the dancers, as I take the photographs.
I like it very much.”
Spitz also likes to amuse. A photo series called “Light in the Mirror of Time” presents us with a fascinating array of pictures of an antique Bible that has been in the photographer’s family for 300 years. Spitz, her Hasselblad and her photo lab techniques show the edge of every page of the open book in brilliant, haunting detail as the pages cascade in a graceful arch from one cover to the other.
If there is anything Spitz does not care for, it is the idea of political- or social issues-oriented photography. She explains: “I don’t think these ‘reportage’ photographs that are filling the galleries – with all their depictions of bloodshed and killing – are making the world any better.
In my opinion, they are doing the very opposite. It’s like television: All the time you see violence; violence, violence, violence all the time.
“So people just get used to it. And then things become even more terrible.
“I can give you an example from my own life,” she says. “I was very curious during the Six Day War. We were all in a state of shock, and riveted to the situation. I went with my camera and a friend to the Golan to see what was going on.
“For me, it was a lesson about myself. I saw terrible things along the way. I don’t know of any other photographer who wasn’t running to the war zone to take photos.
But I saw it, and I was in shock, and I simply could not take any photographs.
“It’s just not respectful to someone who is lying dead, or has left an arm or hand lying on the ground. I could not do it. I came to take photographs with all the energy I had – and when I got there I could do nothing at all. I learned something about myself that time.”
In 2006, Spitz finally set aside her beloved Hasselblad camera and began using a Canon EOS 5D digital camera.
This change in camera was accompanied by an apparent sloughing off of the last vestiges of her roots in realism in favor of distinctly abstract photography.
Her latest series of photographs, entitled “Distant Waters and Paper Landscapes,” effectively breaks the barrier between abstract painting and abstract photography – indeed, between painting and photography themselves.
Says Spitz, “For me, the creative vision is exactly the same. I cannot see the difference. There is no difference.”
While these photographs, some of which recall the rippling inner spirals of tropical ocean waves, comprise the last chapter of Spitz’s new book, they probably don’t signify the final chapter of her professional work.
Asked what lies head, she replies, simply, “I always follow my intuition. It will come. I’m not thinking about anything. It will come.”
Further information about Drora Spitz, her work, and her book ‘Light/Space/Time’ can be found on her website: